Families that received government heating assistance last year and plan to apply this year may be in for a chilling surprise: they have to be poorer to get the financial help.

Last year, a family of four with an annual income up to $44,443 qualified for assistance. This year, the cap for a family of four is $33,075.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, is now accepting applications. But while the state Department of Public Welfare, which administers the program, has no way of knowing how many families will apply for the assistance, the amount of federal money it anticipates has dropped.

"We always anticipate there may be a greater need for the program than the previous year," said DPW spokeswoman Stacey Witalec. "There are so many variables with the LIHEAP program we never know what the weather will be and never know how many families may qualify based on their family status. For those reasons, the department manages the program as tightly as possible, working to stretch the dollars farther than the year before to reach every family in need."

And those dollar-stretching skills are needed more than ever.

"This year we anticipate receiving approximately $275 million," Witalec said. "However, last year we received $330 million. The federal government has not finalized its budget yet. We will not have our final allocation amount until they pass their final spending plan."

During the 2008-09 LIHEAP season, approximately 547,000 families were helped through cash grants and more than 202,000 families received crisis assistance, she said.

The type of fuel and where the applicants live are factors in determining the amount of help received.

Cash grants are based on income, family size, type of heating fuel and region. Crisis grants are provided to resolve heating emergencies or unexpected fuel shortages. In addition to proof of income, residency, citizenship, birth dates and Social Security Numbers for all household members, applicants must provide a recent bill or a statement from their fuel dealer verifying their customer status and the type of fuel that they use.

Emergencies could include broken heating equipment or leaking lines that must be fixed or replaced, a fuel shortage, termination of utility service, or the danger of being without fuel or of having utility service terminated. The crisis grant portion of LIHEAP opens Jan. 4.

Families do not have to have an unpaid heating bill to qualify for LIHEAP, and no lien is placed on their homes.

The program runs through March 15, or as long as funds remain available.

Applications for LIHEAP cash and crisis grants are available from the Carbon County Assistance Office located at 101 Lehigh Drive, Lehighton. The number is (610) 577-9020.

Information can also be found by visiting the LIHEAP Web site, or by contacting one of state Rep. Keith McCall's offices.